Wednesday, November 16, 2011

FACE OFF - TIFF/VSC Restoration of Historic 1971 Canadian Hockey Picture: A Portrait of NHL Glory Days at Dawn of Indigenous Canuck Movie Culture

Face Off (1971) dir. George McCowan (U.S. Title: Winter Comes Early)

Starring: Art Hindle, Trudy Young, Frank Moore, John Vernon, Vivian Reis, Derek Sanderson, Austin Willis, Sean Sullivan, George Armstrong, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Darryl Sittler, Harold Ballard, Paul Henderson, Jean Beliveau, Scott Young

RATING: (out of ****) ****

By Greg Klymkiw
"It takes a lot of courage to watch a man out there night after night. I know the players get most of the glory, but I think the women who wait at home for them at night deserve most of the credit. They must have to love the game as much as the man does." - Austin Willis as the silver-domed owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs to Trudy Young, the young singer who falls in love with the team's new star player.
Hockey is Canada's national sport. End of story. No arguments are necessary. They will not be considered, so just keep 'em to yourself, please. Unbelievably though, until 1994, our national sport was officially Lacrosse. I kid you not. Lacrosse! Lacrosse? Give me a break. When finally, this wrong had been rendered right, it was done so in that annoyingly moderate Canadian fashion wherein Hockey had to officially share the distinction with Lacrosse, to appease only those of the politically correct persuasion. But, no matter. I know it, you know it, everybody knows it. Hockey is as Canadian as Maple Syrup, peameal bacon, Canadian geese, pouding chômeur and Norman Jewison. As such, one can only wonder why the most Canadian movie NEVER made by Canadians was Slap Shot, George Roy Hill's hilarious hockey satire with Paul Newman. But hold the phone! Many years before everyone's favourite salad dressing magnate and the Hanson Brothers cracked heads like so many eggs, yielding runny crimson yolk matter upon the fresh, white ice, Canada did indeed generate a terrific piss and vinegar hockey picture - Face Off .

Written by George Robertson (based on written materials by Neil Young's Dad, sports writer Scott Young), directed by stalwart TV helmer George McCowan (who would happily go on to direct the utterly insane 70s horror thriller Frogs) and starring a very handsome Art Hindle (who went on to scare the shit out of movie audiences as Brooke Adams's pod-victim hubby in Phil Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake) and the delectable Trudy Young (former childstar and every young Canadian boy's wet dream from the long-running kids show Razzle Dazzle), Face Off blazed onto Canadian screens in the 70s and played premiere first run theatres all across the country. (I first saw the picture with my Dad in Winnipeg in a huge old picture palace.)

This was truly a movie by Canadians, for Canadians. They embraced it wholeheartedly - not just because it was a genuinely good picture, but the amazing on-ice action. Without question, Face Off is historically significant for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it contains the only existing 35mm film footage of actual NHL hockey action. In spite of this, the original elements to generate new prints went missing and it's suspected the negative had been thrown out by mistake after producer John F. Bassett's untimely death from brain cancer in 1985. With one decent existing print left in the whole world at the Toronto International Film Festival's Film Reference Library, the visionary Canadian home entertainment company Video Service Corporation (VSC) undertook the painstaking, expensive and worthwhile toil of restoring the film - frame by frame - to high definition.

The movie itself straddles the best of both worlds; that amazing early period of Canuck features that not only reflected English Canadian culture, but did so with that distinctive 70s darkness so prevalent in the work of the country's neighbours south of the 49th parallel. On the surface, Face Off is a simple, oft-told tale of star-crossed lovers; doomed from the start. the movie is all the more melancholy as we experience WHY they should be together, but also get a God's-eye perspective of WHY they won't be together. As the narrative unspools, we hope against all hope that things will work out for the best, but anyone who knows and loves the best movies from the 70s will realize it's a done deal - the relationship will be thwarted.

The emphasis on darkness was not only the 70s way, but the Canadian Way. Canuck pictures from this period shared the zeitgeist of tone so apparent in the work of Scorsese, Schrader, Toback, Reizs, Lumet and others. Where the movies differed was in "production value" (ugh - I hate that phrase). Naturally lower budgets as well as the huge National Film Board influence resulted in films that blended traditional, classical storytelling with an almost Neo-realist approach - less razzle-dazzle, more dour-dazzle.

The movie begins, however, with a narrative that in and of itself, is pure fairy tale. Billy Duke (Art Hindle), a fresh-faced young demon on ice from Northern Ontario scores a spectacular winning goal and luckily for him, a Maple Leafs scout is in the crowd and offers him a spot with the once-gloried, but now beleagured NHL team - they need a star and they need wins. Celebrating at the local bar with his team mates, Billy is hit with Cupid's arrow when he locks eyes with the beautiful songstress Sherri Lee Nelson (Trudy Young) who is playing in the band Winter Comes Early, an up and coming group led by the talented songwriter-musician Barney (Frank Moore). Barney clearly carries a torch for Sherri, but she's dazzled by the aw-shucks down-home charm of Billy.

With this, two important love triangles emerge.

While Barney pines for Sherri, Sherri pines for Billy. The Dukester's mistress is not flesh and blood, but rather, the Bitch-Goddess that is pro-hockey. Billy and Sherri have everything going for them - both are rising stars and ascending the heights with speeding bullet velocity and yet, as their love deepens, so do the pressures of their respective lifestyles. Billy's first true love is hockey and his relationship with the peace loving hippie chick songstress is strained to say the least because of it. Billy's game is also off due to the real-world realities of l'amour and even Sherri threatens her commitment to music due to the same.

Add to this, as one must do in tales of star-crossed lovers, the outside forces which toss an unwanted spanner in the works. Sherri's are both Barney, who offers stability, commitment and friendship, and her need for a family (Mom was a single parent AND drunken floozy - this in sharp contrast to the down home hearth she experiences in Billy's familial Shagrila in Northern Ontario.) The primary outside force wreaking havoc with Billy's love life is the male patriarchy of the sports world. It's a man's world and his iron-fisted Coach (the late, great John Vernon) does everything in his power to let Billy know that hockey comes before everything. This is more than ably demonstrated in the Coach's relationship with his own wife, a lonely, clinging, drunken floozy. This is not lost on Sherri - Lord knows she doesn't want to become anything like her own Mom, nor does she envision the love of her life being an absentee-husband.

One of the best scenes in the movie is a New Year 's Eve party hosted by the team. Naturally, Billy brings Sherri and naturally, every male in some position of power, subtly and not-so-subtly, put the necessary bugs in her ears that being a hockey wife requires sacrifice. The writing here is first rate as Sherri is tossed, almost La Ronde-like about the room while McCowan's expert direction captures the rhythm of the patriarchal rotisserie with consummate camera-jockeying.

Later in the film, the Coach has a chilling conversation with Billy wherein he opines with the force of fact: "Kid, everything in life has to be in its proper place. Even the wife, eh." Billy regards this with a mixture of skepticism and acceptance. He responds in a poker face with: "Something to think about." The Coach delivers the final knockout verbal blow: "Just don't think about it. DECIDE!!!"

For Billy, it IS a tough decision. He's not only being seduced by the game, his teammates, his bosses, but by fame itself. At one point, Billy and Sherri clash when he gloats over his "bad boy" press in the sports pages. When she accuses him of being "just like the rest of them" (the patriarchal world that has attempted to put HER in her place), Billy responds, "No I'm not." And here is where Hindle and Young really break hearts - thanks to their fresh, meaningful performances and the great 70s-style dialogue. Billy brashly, directly and romantically takes the bull by the horns, looks Sherri in the eyes and says, "I'm younger, stronger and tougher and that's why you dig me. You know that's right. We both know it, eh." And here, for me is the clincher where I fell in love all over again with this movie. Billy adds: "So dry your eyes and put on something warm. I think we both could use some fresh air."

Ah, young love in Canada.

A stroll through sub-zero winter snow and all will be well.

And, like the name of Sherri's band and the U.S. title of the film, winter does indeed come early, and this tale of star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of Canada's national sport races to a tragic and moving finish.

What a terrific movie!

On and off the ice, Face Off captures the world of pro-hockey with a considerable degree of reality. Even when it might not be to the letter, the world, the atmosphere, the locker room camaraderie, the wood paneled smoky taverns, the cheap suits adorning the men, the clutches of sports reporters, the parties and, as detailed above, the place of women in this world of gladiators on the ice and their masters in the back rooms. Even as a kid, so much of the movie resonated for me on this level. Having a father who played pro-hockey, did post-game radio analysis and in his later years, promoted pro-hockey in his position as a marketing man with a major league sponsor, I was surrounded by so much of the atmosphere that when Dad took me to see the movie in 1971, I was totally enamoured with it.

I'm also pleased to say that seeing the movie forty years later, those days came alive again and, I might add, in deeper ways - especially in the film's examination of men and women and their, respective places in that world.

The other important aspect of the film is just how Canadian it is - not just stylistically, but in how it so effortlessly captures Canada's unique indigenous culture. Like all good things Canadian, it doesn't do this in obvious flag waving ways, but with a subtle matter-of-factness. For example, one (of many) terrific cuts in the picture, occurs at the small town railway station as Billy is about to leave for Toronto. A nice close up on a metal footstool placed in front of the train's passenger doorway leads us simply into a "goodbye" scene and emblazoned upon it are the immortal words: "Canadian Pacific".

For all the film's melodrama and simple classical story structure, McCowan happily embraces the Neo-realist approach to much of the action. Montage sequences in the streets pulsate with life, the bars are replete with background extras who look like they've lived there forever - puffing on cigarettes and sucking back beer in the distinctive Canadian stubby bottles, the on-ice action of real NHL hockey games is expertly matched with recreations of said matches using Hindle himself or his stand-ins. The professional actors handle their roles with the requisite dollops of naturalism so they blend beautifully with the numerous appearances of non-actors. (One of the best performances comes from NHL bad boy Derek Sanderson in a small, but important role in which he plays himself. The other comes from Leafs' captain George "Chief" Armstrong who delivers a speech to Billy that is so bursting-at-the-seams with hockey wisdom, fans will feel they've died and gone to Heaven.)

Art Hindle and Trudy Young as the love-struck couple are a marvel to behold. The camera loves them and their chemistry is natural. Given how popular the movie was in Canada, I remember thinking - even as a kid - why neither of them became stars. Hindle, of course, went on to make a long and successful career as a "working actor" and is now one of our country's finest character actors.

The immortal John Vernon, always a treat to watch in any movie, had a long career in character roles on both sides of the 49th parallel. His performance here as the coach is ice personified. (Though for me, nothing will ever match the scene in the classic Linda Blair women-in-prison picture Caged Heat where Vernon, as the warden, sat back in a hot tub full of naked women whilst puffing a cigar. I'm sure this was far more edifying than a scene in Mob Story where, in my sporadic acting career doing cameos for friends, I was accosted by Mr. Vernon who played a gangster whilst adorned in stereotypical Canadian-hoser garb, I suffered the indignity of being interrupted during a leisurely dump as Mr. Vernon tore the door off the frame of a cubicle in an airport john.) Vivian Reis as Vernon's beleagured wife delivers an absolutely heartbreaking performance while Austin Willis renders a more than creepy paternalistic tone as the hockey team's owner. The real revelation here is Frank Moore as Barney. Moore has become a great character actor, but in this film, his soulful eyes betray his poker face. His presence lends the film both pathos and humour while many of the songs sung by the group in the picture, "Winter Comes Early", are genuine top-tappers. Here's yet another example of a tremendous Canadian actor who has star written all over him, but for whatever reason, neither he nor the system ever adequately let him take that path.

And yes, let us pause again to mention that director McCowan rendered the cult classic Frogs. While this may seem a dubious achievement to some, it's one of my favourite 70s horror pictures and the images of Ray Milland being attacked by frogs and resulting in his death by heart attack is as indelibly etched upon my mind as the shot of Trudy Young and Art Hindle in Face Off jumping joyfully upon a liquid-filled mattress in a Yorkville waterbed store.

Face Off is classic Canadian cinema. To think it was almost lost forever is sickening and VSC deserves huge kudos for taking this on. The results of the restoration are spectacular - the film is now available to all its original fans in a brand spanking new 40th Anniversary DVD/Bluray Combo edition. This edition will also serve new generations of Canadian audiences and hockey nuts; the high definition work is superb, maintaining grain and the distinctive colour palette and the sound work is superb with a cleaner version of the mono mix on the optical and occasionally with bits and pieces of the original optical "sound" (or if, you will, "hiss"). For me, this always gives older films a lot more warmth than the idiotic overkill sometimes performed by over-zealous audio technical artists on mono mixes.

The package includes the original SCTV parody of Face Off, a trailer and commentary track. I personally don't much like commentary tracks - I find them meandering and almost pointless. Luckily, stars Art Hindle and Trudy Young share a few cool stories, but what this really needed was a moderator who could have guided the conversation in more practical fashion. I also think the expense of doing a short video documentary on the film's history and subsequent restoration might have been a worthy addition. These quibbles aside, it's a great home entertainment release and VSC proves once more it's one of the most original and committed companies generating important product for the home market in North America.


  1. did you mention (Chief) George Armstrong's speech about the different types of hockey players? I'd love to see it again just for that dialogue. I am thrilled this is available. It will look good next to the soundtrack which I do have.

  2. Who could ever forget George Armstrong? What a guy!

  3. This past weekend, I watched Face Off with my 13 year old son and coincidently, I was 13 when it came out back in '71. For me, it was very enjoyable to be transported back in time and also tell my son what is was like to be 13 in that "time" and compare it to his life now. I loved this movie back then and still love it now. For sure, there are flaws and the plot lines/characters never get fully developed, but for me that is what gives this movie it's charm. And to see a young Derek Sanderson in his prime is worth it alone. My parents gave me the book for Christmas that year without realizing that parts of it were x-rated, and I remember reading it under the covers :-). This was a movie well worth the expense to restore! Lastly, I really enjoyed Trudy and Art's commentary, laughing out loud at times as it brought back memories of growing up in Toronto during those times.